Opinion

How can we make the land of our fathers the land of our futures?

04 Feb 2021 10 minutes Read
Picture by Phil Dolby (CC BY 2.0)

Neil Anderson

As climate change bites deeper, it is inevitable that governments worldwide will assume greater control over humankind’s use of land.  Long critical to our food supply and our well-being, the immense significance of land as a carbon sink has only recently come to be fully recognised.  That its effectiveness as the latter can be enhanced or degraded by particular land uses is salient to future policy.  States will want to prioritise its sustainable utilisation and long-term protection, and probably to ensure a more equitable distribution of its products and benefits.

Our misuse of this precious resource – the soil and its fertility and structure, the biota and habitats it has supported, the boundaries between it and the rivers and sea, the waters of both – is a shocking tale of over-exploitation, indifference and neglect that we are quickly coming to regret.  Without urgent action to protect and rebuild our natural infrastructure, humankind’s long-term survival is seriously threatened.

In Cymru, some 88% of the land area is utilised by agriculture, including about 66% which is grassland pasture focused on sheep, beef and dairy farming.  Only 9% is arable land, but much of the rest could support sustainable horticulture with good husbandry.  The mean farm size is 48ha.

Farm incomes have often less to do with the application and aptitude of farmers than the vagaries of markets and the unstable prices they engender.  However, though rural incomes are rarely high, they can offer an improvement on those available in cities and towns for most people.

The following article argues for a pre-emptive strike before a clumsier and more bureaucratised rationalisation of land use is forced upon us.  Not simply to increase the resilience and self-sufficiency of our national food supply chains, but also to achieve a wide range of other desirable social and community objectives.  While this package will be controversial, there are many in the rural sector who will recognise the potential of the proposal and the desirability of closer integration with our cities and towns that it would facilitate.  As Smaje notes in A Small Farm Future, profound change is coming anyway, however we try to cut the cake.

There is huge potential for diversification on smaller-scale farms requiring lower capital inputs, offering more employment and producing food that is currently imported.  We generally conceive farming as a being a full-time occupation, but there is scope for a different approach.  The social benefit of giving more people a stake in the land and of reviving rural communities is immense, while limited and largely uniform outputs (meat, dairy) condemn Cymru to the fate of primary producers everywhere – relatively low prices and market manipulation.

There are microclimatic niches in Cymru which should be explored and exploited to grow exotic and specialist crops.  Already, development of selected strains has extended growing seasons.  Similarly, conserving small flocks of rare breeds and raising animals able to produce material with specific genotypes for medical use will provide significant benefit.

Incoming farmers are likely to be more adventurous and innovative in supplying both the more sophisticated restaurant culture and home cuisine that has been established here in recent years with a wider range of crops.  High-quality processed food, on a suitable scale, could supplant many imported goods.

The principal objectives should be to maintain and improve food quality, to adopt humane practices in the farming of animals and reduce our reliance on animal protein, to develop self-sufficiency in food on a sustainable basis, to provide those living and working in the rural sector with an acceptable standard of living, provision of services and quality of life, and to ensure access to balanced diets for everyone in Cymru.  All, however, are probably contingent upon achieving sovereign independence for our country and the democratic renewal that would ensue.

Nationalisation

First, I propose the nationalisation of all non-public land in Cymru on titles covering more than 1 hectare, with an exemption of 1ha plots around any habitable dwellings on each.  The status of the 1ha plots would be designed to guarantee lifelong occupation by the present owners if they wished.  Existing leaseholds would be phased out.

A Right to Roam on all public land would be established in law.

Second, that a new government agency, in association with the present occupiers, continues pro tem with the present uses of the land, subject to a number of caveats…

  1. That all farmers are paid a salary for continuing to manage what was their part of the national land resource
  2. That those who have farmed for 30 years and have reached the age of 50 be offered early retirement on an enhanced pension, with an option of continuing in the sector on a part-time basis as a consultant and/or farmer
  3. That all agriculture in Cymru becomes fully and permanently organic within 10 years (expanding the Glastir Organic programme), with artificial fertilisers and pesticides rapidly phased out
  4. That extensive areas of trees, especially in hedgerows, watercourse and highway buffer zones, and serving multiple purposes (eg. stock fodder, shelter, nature regeneration, downstream wood processing) are planted throughout Cymru
  5. That the sustainable long-term carrying capacity of each existing farm be assessed, with retirement, eco-tourism, afforestation and rewilding among the options. Constrained water supplies should be assumed and extraction from all sources subject to application
  6. That a production unit sufficient to provide at least a part-time income be established on each 1ha plot. This could be an internet-based business, horticulture, tree nursery, high-potency cannabis for medicinal and recreational use, holiday accommodation, apiary etc
  7. That a selected number of 1ha plots be extracted from the original title for sale to new part-time farmers (with priority for first- and second-generation descendants of the owners, discounted appropriately, and local agricultural contractors), subject to the approval of a management plan for their unit (as 6.) and to meeting other planning requirements. The agency would pay for surveying and development costs.
  8. That small sub-divisions of properties (minimum size 1250m2), subject to standard planning requirements for minimum access, water supply etc, should be established in areas where a critical mass is required for the opening of a country store, retirement cluster, village school, medical centre and other facilities.  Public open space would be increased.
  9. That larger plots (> 1ha) in urban areas be similarly ‘trimmed’ with the land released utilised for allotments, community tree plantings etc
  10. That a range of household types (eg. family groups, cooperatives) be encouraged to become owners
  11. That educational courses in all rural activities be provided by schools and colleges, and specialist research institutes be established in mycology, entomology, biochemistry of natural products (wood, hemp etc), paludiculture, fermiculture, microbiology etc

Third, land which has been degraded by over-stocking, poor crop rotation etc, would be remediated by planting hemp or similar crops, and/or retired to long-term forestry use and/or rewilding.  In respect of water management, runoff and point discharges contaminated by farming activities would be collected in holding tanks and treated on-site.

All water bodies and their outflows would be registered, monitored and, together with their riparian areas, managed by local residents in accordance with new national standards.  All existing access, water and fishing rights would be cancelled, and water bodies omitted from property titles.

Riparian zones would be left to re-wild, with beavers reintroduced to mitigate peak flows of flood waters.  Suitable species of trees would be planted to stabilise the banks and to accelerate the return of birds and other wildlife.  Trails would provide access to stream and river corridors for fishing and other low-impact recreation.

Water harvesting ponds would be established wherever the terrain was suitable to ensure a supply for crops and stock, and to maintain a minimum flow in streams during dry periods.

Finally, to avoid creating a land rush and local people being priced out, we should restrict future land ownership to residents, similarly to Denmark, who have lived in Cymru for at least five years on Independence Day.  Preferably, new owners would have a rural background, identification with the local area or specific skills related to their intended land use.  Only owner-occupiers would be permitted to lease further land.

While the expectations of some for large capital gains arising from their current ownership of land should not be entertained, fair compensation for net personal and familial losses should be paid subject to well-documented application.  Claims would be assessed and audited over the previous ten years, including government funding, taxes, value of farm stock and improvements, revenues and expenditures, insurances and any other costs and benefits, including debt, accrued by the farm.

Outcomes

Among the early changes would be an influx of new residents into rural areas.  They would quickly enhance local commercial activities, repopulate schools and secure linguistic communities.  There would be a shift in political power towards the countryside.

Local and small-scale builders and suppliers would be in high demand.  Large-scale urban and peri-urban developments would be discontinued.  All new housing should be built to the highest standards (low-carbon, optimal solar capture, comfort and convenience).  Local roads should be reduced in scale with priority for active travel modes.

The changes would bring financial stability, resilience and reliability to the food sector.  They would also curb excessive profiteering throughout the supply chain to the end-consumer.  Producers and their families would have a reliable income and financial stress would be avoided.  While we would dispense with the growth-dependent mode of production, a wider range of local produce would buoy the economy and ensure adequate food supplies within the region.

Good planning and an appreciation of appropriate scale at all levels would avoid duplication of community service provision (eg. medical centres).  Long-term transportation planning should provide for passenger and freight movement by tram while reducing overall transport volume.  Part-time, home- and remote working would both reduce and spread public transport demand across the day.  Proposed investments in transportation infrastructure should be re-assessed to take account of the on-going changes of mode and reduced demand, and of social investments that are likely to assume a higher priority.

Conclusions

The climate crisis will force us to act with unprecedented urgency in making extensive changes in the way we live.  When we eventually do take sufficient action, it can be in the certain knowledge that it would have been easier and cheaper to start from now, or earlier.  The precautionary principle suggests we do not wait to be engulfed by both foreseen and unforeseen threats.

In the hands of a responsible and accountable government, nationalisation can be a powerful tool to protect us and our well-being.  Already, it has been used by both the Welsh and UK governments (eg. rail transport) and will be again to protect strategic and other assets.  These might include flood-risk properties, warehouse roofs for solar energy production and student debt.

It is apparent that the proposals above would have major synergistic effects on local and regional economies throughout Cymru.  The package should also help provoke serious discussion about how our country may best survive in the long-term, and potentially thrive while working within all environmental limits to secure the future of our people, the establishment of an equitable and free society, and our participation in global culture.  But most of all, prompt us to act.

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